The cinematic spectator
Both Hugo Munsterberg and Rudolf Arnheim took particular interest in the cinematic spectator and how the moving pictures on the screen affected them. Through close psychological analysis and the formulation of processes, each had their own take on the spectator’s engagement in the cinematic experience. Through close analysis we can get an insight and clearer understanding of why people are drawn to motion pictures and what happens to them when they arrive.
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Munsterberg describes viewing as an aesthetic experience while Arnheim deems it an “unreal experience”. This aesthetic experience Munsterberg acknowledges is “where the film is a detachment or isolation from our daily routine and real time and reality are left behind, an experience that is entirely self contained” (Andrew, 26). This experience begins when the picture does as slowly the spectator is disengaged from their reality and engaging with the reality on the screen. They are content in perceiving everything during that moment, isolated from all outer surroundings. This experience, according to Munsterberg, is attained through ones mind and this was the foundation for his conclusions.
Based in Gestalt psychology, Munsterberg saw the mind composed as several levels where the higher were dependent on the operation and functionality of the lower. When each level was engaged, the spectator could fully engage with the picture by resolving what Munsterberg referred to as “undistinguished stimuli”, subconscious renderings that are summoned while viewing the work, creating a world which one could relate emotionally to the events and objects. The spectators mind, according to Munsterberg, then creates an internal object through a “phi-phenomenon” where emphasis is placed on the active powers of the spectator giving the film fluidity by bringing the mind to a state of full engagement and contentment, mentally held in a state of “rapt attention”. Munsterberg writes “we do not see objective reality but a product of our own mind which binds the pictures together” (The Means of the Photoplay, 411-412) which is accomplished through the means of what Munsterberg deemed photoplay. Photoplay tells the story of the outside world through the manipulation of events to the forms of the world on the screen. This is accomplished by taking the outer space, time, and causality and adjusting the inners attention, memory, imagination and emotion. He sees the spectator as one who undergoes a psychological connection with the moving images presented on the screen and draws rational relations to them through their own personal experiences.
Rudolph Arnheim sees the spectator as an active viewer who pays attention to the films form. He feels the meaning is a pattern rather than individual stimuli and shifts the focus away from the psychological side, Munsterberg’s main basis, and shifts the focus to the material itself, the happenings of the film. This material Arnheim claims “must be all factors which make it a less than perfect illusion of reality” (Andrew, 28). This unreality takes on all aspects of the medium by manipulating the film elements such as projection, reduction, lighting, color, framing and editing. The artist controls and manipulates these elements for their own expression in trying to tell the story and to keep the viewer interested in what is presented on the screen.
These aspects also make up the fabric of what Arnheim deemed film art. Arnheim says “film art is based on the manipulation of the technically visible, not the humanly visual” (Andrew, 29) meaning the elements and technical aspects used to create the medium must be manipulated in a way which tap into human emotions, experiences and surroundings. Trying to present these elements, however, did not come without limitations, which challenged the artists and their limits of expression. When all of the elements were presented in cohesion, Arnheim said the viewer underwent a “transformation”. This is shown clearly in Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film Modern Times where the viewer is able to fully engage with the main character as he gracefully fumbles through his work day around the factory. We are transformed from our everyday lives into this comedic wonderland and are left wanting more.
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During the 1920’s and 30’s, spectators along with the artists were still adapting to this developing medium. Portraying and projecting posed a challenge for the filmmakers as to how they were going to take a 3D image to 2 dimensional and still be able to express themselves artistically. Arnheim’s take was “art begins where mechanical reproduction leaves off, where the conditions of reproductions serve in some way to mold the object. And the spectator shows himself to be lacking in proper aesthetic appreciation when he is satisfied to see the picture as purely objective” (PP, 1933 edition, 68-69). Since the images constantly moving and portraying body language, facial expressions and interacting with other things, the viewer must be active and engaged, not just observing the film for its images. Our eyes work with our other senses which allow us to experience the medium itself while we become lost in the illusion on the screen. These are the means by which Arnheim said the spectator can treat the film as such rather than reality.
There are many reasons people were and still are drawn to motion pictures. We are mesmerized by the stories, images and meanings. The cinematic experience is of both mind and body. We draw from our life experiences, memories and knowledge and are transcended into another world. The experience heightens the senses; it can make you laugh or cry, leave you happy or sad. The images and thoughts from our own minds are activated and we relate to them passing on the screen. We live vicariously through the character(s) for that moment in time, we are detached from reality, emotionally attached, transcended from our daily routines.
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